Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)
At five in the morning Zoega, the famous Icelandic guide, had the ponies ready at the shore. For sixteen tourists, a cook, two servants, five guides, twenty-four in all, there were sixty-five horses. Imagine the scene. A spare horse for person, that’s forty-eight, with seventeen horses used as pack animals. The pack animals will carry the hundredweight of food, tents, clothes, and general baggage. The cost? Sixty-five pounds. In a country where barter was still used and silver, rare, the sum was a windfall.
Icelandic horses are small, that’s why they are referred to by Trollope as ponies. He says that the women were fairy Mastiffs, a light burden for any horse but that his horse would have to carry over sixteen stones. That’s twenty pounds to a stone. He weighs more than three hundred and twenty pounds.
Normally, Trollope says, he is used to travelling about five miles an hour by horse but here they made seven. The first stage is done in four hours. After twenty-eight miles, they stop for lunch. They’ve each brought a lunch and tea is made. The pack horses had left the previous night so as to be at Thingvalla when the travellers arrive. The tents will be set up. Food will be ready.
“Thingvalla is a wonderful place, very picturesque, worthy, in itself, of a journey. Taken as a whole it was perhaps of all that we saw in Iceland the most worth seeing.”
When they get to Thingvalla, arrangements are made for John Burns’ wife to remain with the minister and his family. The ladies spend the night sleeping in the church and the men sleep in tents.
The next day they ride to the Geysers. They expected the trip to take eight hours. The baggage horses weren’t able to leave before them. When the travellers get to the geysers, there’ll be no prepared dinner and no tents in which to rest. However, each carries a lunch, there is whiskey available and one of the farms close to “our resting-place on this day huge bowls of milk, washing-basins full of milk, were brought down to us from a neighbouring farm-house.”
Trollope, with his writer’s eye and writing style, captures a sense of the adventure in the following passage: “A few miles on from thence we came to the river Bruara, crossing it at a spot so beautiful and so singular that it will always rest on my memory distinct from all other river scenes. Some miles beyond the Bruara it was benevolently suggested by the elder Zoega that he would gallop on to a certain farm about three miles off and, as our own provisions were in the rear, have provided for us such comforts as the farmer could supply. Then it was a passion for fast riding first came upon our ladies. Zoega started in a gallop, and, – truth compels me to state the fact, – Miss Stuart would go with him. There fell upon Zoega a strong desire to reach that farmhouse alone, – but an equally strong desire on Miss Stuart to be there with him. When Zoega got off his pony at the gate, Miss Stuart, at the same moment, slipped off from hers at the same spot.
“After that, till we were back at Reykjavik, there can be no saying which of the three young ladies rode the hardest. Miss Reddie at last got an ugly lanky pony which for a while enabled her to leave every one in the lurch. Miss Campbell would for awhile take up the running so that we were inclined to back a little red wall-eyed animal which she rode against the field.
“As one result of the fast riding we got our coffee at the farm-house, called Muli, and had also an ample opprtunity of seeing the appurtenances of a comfortable Iceland grange. Our meal consisted chiefly of curds, cream, and sugar, which some of us pronounced to be excellent, and of which some of us ate very heartily. The curds were a little sour, – but were so deluged with thick cream that I thought them to be delicious.
“After remaining at Muli nearly two hours, we galloped on, and soon reached the field of the Geysers which was about four miles distant.”
“Here we were at the Geysers! To most of us, I think, the Geysers had been the chief point of attraction. As I had seen the Geysers of New Zealand, and had learned how inferior were those in Iceland, I cannot say that it had been so to me. But the Geysers even of Iceland are a sight to see, and I was glad to have an opportunity of visiting them. Our ride to and from the Geysers, with Thingvalla, the Bruara, and our galloping ‘Mastiffs’, will always be dearer to me than the Geysers themselves.”
Trollope says that since he has seen the geysers of New Zealand, he thinks the Icelandic geysers to be “second-class Geysers.” He thinks the area around the geysers is so destroyed by the eruptions so that while it is a curious place, it is not beautiful.
“I left Thingvalla with soft regrets, as I told myself that I should never again see that interesting spot. Thrice I had bathed in its rivers, and had roamed about it till I seemed to know all its nooks. It is a place full of nooks, because of those wonderful rifts, – and full of greenness. I had not cared much for the Geysers, but Thingvalla and the Bruara had been very charming to me. It was strange to me that there should be a place in Iceland so beautiful and so soft as Thingvalla with its lake.”
When they reach Reykjavik they wake up a photographer at six o’clock in the morning to get a group portrait made.”
And so it ends. But such a summary does this little book a great injustice for Trollope is a famous writer for good reason. His writing is clear and precise and has attitude that is revealing. Although he does not dwell on John Burns, he creates a picture of a man worth knowing. The same is true of the young ladies who ride at breakneck speed. In such a book, all he can provide is a brief glimpses but each glimpse is worth having. He is of his class and one cannot hold that against him. After all, no ordinary folk travelled to Iceland. Those who came to study and observe were wealthy and often titled. Barbers and cobblers couldn’t afford the ticket. As for the behaviour of the Mastiffs, today, we are none better. I’ve taken a cruise ship to the Baltic ports and had little experience of the people. Our captain did not even include local notables for our tables. We toured and bought trinkets and were insulated from the daily reality of the people.
This book, as small as it is, is valuable to those of us of Icelandic background for it provides a glimpse into Icelandic life that we seldom see in traveller’s accounts. The dinner party is a gem. The only thing one could have wished for was the dinner menu. Hopefully, some of those reading this series of excerpts, will read all of How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland and, of those, some will go on to read some of Trollope’s novels. And, perhaps, some of my readers will read the dinner guest list and see if any of their ancestors danced on the Mastiff’s deck.
(quotes from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland)